Cuba 2, Venezuela 1
Three DVDs have turned up, two about Cuba and one about Venezuela, which portray different perspectives on revolutionary politics in Latin America at different stages. Mike Wayne & Deirdre O’Neill’s Listen to Venezuela is a lengthy report on the Venezuelan process by a pair of leftist intellectuals on an academic research scholarship, dense with information about what is really going on there. With our memory on the future (Con la memoria en el futuro) presents the veteran Cuban documentarist Octavio Cortázar looking back shortly before his death in 2008, revisiting the territory of his 1974 documentary, With Cuban Women (Con la mujeres cubanas), asking if women’s lot has genuinely improved and machismo is on the decline. Filmically the most satisfying, Andrew Lang’s Sons of Cuba is the work of a young British film-maker, an agile portrait of a boxing academy for youngsters in Havana.
Listen to Venezuela is an earnest and didactic video, long and sprawling, with some fetching observational moments. Calling itself ‘a revolutionary film about a country in revolution’, the model it invokes is that of The Hour of the Furnaces (La hora de los hornos) by the Argentinians Solanas and Getino back in 1968. This allows the film-makers to provide a substantial historical analysis, from a committed perspective, of how Venezuela got to be where it is. Most importantly, it provides a corrective to the demonisation of Chávez as a dictator in the international media, not just through rehearsing his electoral successes but by testifying to a process of popular politicisation which Chávez has unleashed with his Bolivarian Revolution. In the phrase of one of the film’s speakers, ‘socialism without democracy is like chicken and rice without the chicken’. A pity then that in terms of visual aesthetics it’s pretty dull stuff, mainly because it doesn’t have the richness of the brilliant montage of the Argentinian model. There are some observational scenes, when the camera goes out on the streets, which give a glimpse or flavour of the political mood. (See A Gringa Diary for a vivid and up-to-date blog of street level political culture in a Venezuelan city.) Rather buried in the middle is a surprise: a simple montage of stills over a poem by Ronnie McGrath (’The Oligarch’s Poem’) recited in a sing-song lisp by Roberto Sainz de la Maza (who also contributed music) which could stand on its own as a short.
Sons of Cuba is very different, first of all because it’s visually extremely stylish, with an agile camera that (unlike Wayne & O’Neill) takes you right into the scene, in close contact with its subjects. These are not quite ordinary inner city youngsters: Cuba has notched up 63 Olympic boxing medals in 40 years, and the Havana Boxing Academy is one of a number of special boarding schools where the most promising under-12s receive their initial training, which is tough and demanding. Lang worked hard to get access, and makes very good use of it. The result is a film which reads the world of the academy and its fierce national pride as a metaphor for what Lang calls ‘the fight for survival in Cuba’. The difficulty is that the world of the boy boxers is a protected zone of machismo, and Cuban machismo is patriotic and loyal to Fidel, and while this makes for a strongly focussed narrative which eschews the use of a commentary, rhetorically speaking it’s a blunt tool, a pugnacious metaphor for a wider reality which we only ever glimpse. But these glimpses include discomforting moments. When the camera accompanies three of the boys home at weekends, we meet their parents and see the poverty in which they live—one of them is himself a former Olympic champion who reflects that sporting success is only a flickering moment.
The film skirts round the wider politics cautiously. The boys are seen silently watching on television the dramatic announcement when Fidel was forced by illness to hand over power to his brother Raúl. A few weeks later they reel from an even bigger psychological blow, when three top Cuban boxers—the very idols whom they seek to emulate—defect to the USA in order to turn professional, and in order to bolster their morale, the boys are taken to meet the Cuban national team in their gym. The camera bears patient witness to their bewliderment. When it comes to the inevitable contests in the ring, however, and these fragile kids have to suffer the pain of losing, then it gets personal and the tears flow. There is even one extraordinary moment when one of the boys is crying not because he’s lost, but because he’s just beaten his best friend. In the end, it’s a lovely and touching film to watch but ironically, not that much different from what might have been made by a loyal film-maker at Cuban film institute.
A partial corrective can be found in the video by Cortázar, which was made for the Cuban Federation of Women. This begins with a return to the past: sitting at a video editing suite and looking at the film about women he made in 1974, here is a gentle and elderly Cortázar, who in those days was one of Cuba’s most dynamic and inventive documentarists, soon to take off as a popular feature director. It is not his career he tells us about, however, as he and his co-directors go out onto the streets to find out what men and women think nowadays, but his personal experience of what women’s equality meant in his own life. This works well enough as a narrative device, but the film remains, in the end, and perhaps this is what its rather strange title betrays, a work of nostalgia, with the expectable conclusion, not unjustified, that things have got better but machismo is still a problem.
A final thought or two. The three films also present different forms of usage of video. Listen to Venezuela is low-tech, so to speak—digital but unsophisticated camerwork, without swish editing or flashy use of computer graphics. At the same time, paying homage to its distant model, it is delivered in the form of an illustrated lecture of a kind that most documentarists have long ago abandoned (except for the same Solanas). Its slow rhythm also reminds me of certain predilections of radical independent film in the 70s and 80s, including stuff on Channel Four, designed to counter the rapidity and superficiality of the mainstream. Con la memoria en el futuro is also low tech, in this case, as we see, not even digital—that’s an analog mixing desk Cortázar is sitting at. It fits in a good many voices in its 60 minutes and doesn’t lecture, although it falls back at times on a second commentary voice that sounds too official. Sons of Cuba is the only one of the three that seems designed to make the maximum possible visual impact—to aspire to the condition not of video but of cinema, so I conclude by mentioning that it can caught in London at the ICA from March 18 and selected UK cinemas from March 30.